A View of History, From the Cockpit of the First Air Force One

As icons go, the original Air Force One is one of the most recognizable symbols of the American presidency. For 36 years, seven presidents - starting with John F. Kennedy - crisscrossed the globe inside its blue-and white fuselage.

It carried President Kennedy to Berlin in 1963 for his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. President Nixon flew in it to Beijing in 1972 to "open" China. And Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter boarded together in 1981 to attend the funeral of assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

But after 13,000 hours aloft, SAM 26000, the first of the modern fleet of jets designed specifically for presidential use, will retire in May to an Air Force museum in Ohio.

Before it's mothballed, a few reporters and former crew were invited this week to take a final spin to the edge of the Great Plains and back.

"There is something to be said for pulling into a foreign country in this one," says Air Force Maj. Bart Weiss, behind the cockpit controls of SAM 26000, as middle America slips past 31,000 feet below.

Known for its luxury and first-class service, this plane ferried not only presidents, but also royalty, foreign heads of state, and a who's who of American statesmen and diplomats over its 3-1/2 decades of service. Its first official passenger was a Libyan prince.

"It started a whole new era of diplomacy," says retired MSgt. Stan Goodwin. The plane's chief communications officer from 1969 to 1983, he was aboard with Nixon on his famous trip to Beijing.

Sitting in one of the blue-and-gray leather seats, still elegant despite signs of wear, Sergeant Goodwin is clearly back at home, flying SAM 26000 for the first time in 15 years. "Nixon loved it up here - he was untouchable. He'd tell me he didn't want to talk to anybody, and I made sure he was left alone," he says.

While the plane was built for comfort, it was also built for speed. In the early 1960s it broke 30 speed records. One of them was the fastest nonstop flight from the Soviet Union to the United States.

"This has been the most reliable plane of them all," says Chief MSgt. Joe Chappell, another veteran crew member. "We could fly it anywhere. We never hesitated flying it into unimproved airports." Sergeant Chappell recalls a takeoff from a Soviet airstrip that tested that theory. As the plane accelerated, its wheels bumped harder and harder against the uneven, concrete-slab surface. "You couldn't even read the gauges in the cockpit!" he laughs of the eventually successful takeoff, not funny at the time.

Sergeant Chappell was on hand, too, during the plane's most somber moment in history - transporting the slain President Kennedy to Washington from Dallas in November 1963. He remembers thinking on the fly, removing seats at the rear of the cabin to fit the casket into the passenger section, knowing intuitively it would be inappropriate to place it in the cargo hold.

"If the walls of this plane had ears ...," says Brig. Gen. Arthur Lichte, commander of the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base.

Despite the plane's long record, it has become too expensive to maintain, the Air Force has decided.

"There is a lot of work," admits Tech. Sgt. Heidi Oestrich, who has babied the plane for two years. The crew polishes the shiny stainless parts of the fuselage with hand-held buffers, and it has a secret weapon for wheels that come in tarnished and filthy. "We use Fantastik," she confesses.

While some lament the passing of this icon, most acknowledge the advanced technology of the new 747-200B series. "The new ones have things a president should have," Goodwin concedes.

The new model has 4,000 square feet of space and special wiring that is thermonuclear-electromagnetic-pulse proof. Its two galleys can cook for 70 people at once and can store as many as 2,000 meals for extended flights.

SAM 26000, a Boeing 707, made 200 operational flights to 58 countries last year. Before it's parked for the last time, it will fly several more, including one trip with Vice President Al Gore.

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